Moving to an alternative vote (AV) electoral system could lock extremist candidates out of office and ensue that the least popular politician has the least chance of winning according to an analysis by University of Warwick researcher Professor Dennis Leech.
He says: "AV would undoubtedly be an improvement on First Past The Post (FPTP) -- which is just about the worst election method ever devised, because it does not require that the winner gain a majority. The winner can be elected on the votes of a determined minority of committed supporters even though he or she might be intensely disliked by the vast majority of voters. AV avoids this problem by requiring the winner to have a majority, if not on first preferences alone, then once the second, third and so on of the weaker candidates have been counted after they are eliminated."
"FPTP has allowed extremist candidates to win local government seats in some areas. For example the BNP candidate was elected to represent a Burnley ward with only just over 30 percent of the votes because of a three-way split among the three main parties. A majority of those voters would probably have preferred any one of the main parties to the actual winner."
Professor Leech points out that there is a very graphic example of how AV works, in the French presidential election of 2002.
"This was conducted under a runoff system somewhat similar to AV. The runoff was between the right wing Jacques Chirac and the extreme right winger Jean-Marie Le Pen (who had the support of a fanatical minority but was detested by the majority). The result was an apparently 80% landslide win for Chirac."
Professor Leech also examines the view that changing to the alternative vote (AV) will be a move towards proportional representation -- resulting in more hung parliaments and coalition governments. He says:
"It is said that the Liberal Democrats will do well out of the change because their candidates are normally the second choice of Labour and Tory voters and therefore, since AV counts second preferences, more of them will be elected. So, while we all acknowledge that AV is not strictly proportional, it is at least a compromise that will get us part way there. And if the last election could be re-run under AV, the Liberal Democrats would improve on the 8.8 percent of seats they won, while not achieving the full 23.3 percent their share of the poll would warrant."
"This is a profoundly mistaken view. In fact careful analysis shows that a parliament elected under AV will not necessarily be any more proportional than one elected under the present first past the post (FPTP) system. The reason is that MPs will still be elected separately in each constituency by a voting procedure that takes no account of the national party results."
In the general election the Liberal Democrat vote will have been swelled by natural Tory or Labour supporters voting tactically in some constituencies to try to keep the other main party out. Under AV there will be little opportunity for tactical voting and the Liberal Democrats will suffer as a result. Labour and Tory supporters will be able to vote sincerely for their party, with Liberal Democrats as their second preference, safe in the knowledge that if their candidate is eliminated their vote will still count.
Professor Leech's conclusion is that there is little convincing evidence that the LibDems will do better (even ignoring the drop of support they have experienced since joining the coalition government). He says that: "I will be voting in the referendum for AV because, while it is flawed, it is better than First Past The Post for two good reasons. First, it rules out the possibility of an unpopular extremist being elected due to the vote being divided among the main parties. Second, it frees voters to express their true preferences without having to think about voting tactically."
His full analysis can be seen on the University of Warwick's Knowledge Centre at: http://www.warwick.ac.uk/alumni/knowledge/culture/alternative_vote
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